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Frankly, we didn't figure acclaimed Hong Kong actor Nick Cheung would
make his directorial debut with a horror film - after all, the Hong
Kong Film Awards and Golden Horse Awards Best Actor is better known for
his intense performances in Dante Lam's cop thrillers or even for his
comedic roles in Wong Jing's gambling comedies. Unfortunately for
Cheung, his greenness to the genre works to his disadvantage as a
novice director, and it suffices to say at this point that 'Hungry
Ghost Ritual' fails on many counts from being a well-made horror.
Scripted and produced by 'The Wedding Diary's' Adrian The, the Seventh- Month themed story has Cheung playing Zonghua, the prodigal son of the owner of a Cantonese opera troupe who returns home after a failed business venture in China. Zonghua is greeted warmly by his father Xiaotian but somewhat less so by his half-sister Jing Jing (Cathryn Lee) - though the reason for this isn't clear at the start, nor for that matter, by the end of the movie. Instead, Zonghua spends more of his time with the lead actress of the troupe, Xiaoyan (Annie Liu), who is a lot more accommodating and encouraging than Jing Jing ever is.
At the same time, a parallel narrative has veteran actress Carrie Ng playing the lead actress of another Cantonese opera troupe whose master sidelines her for her younger protégé when she has an accident onstage and ends up spraining her ankles. It isn't until the very end that we are told just how this secondary plot line fits into the central story, which predictably becomes the raison d'etre for the hauntings which plague Zonghua's troupe after a sudden stroke renders his father incapacitated in hospital - not only does Zonghua begin to see ghastly faces along the street, he also receives ominous gifts (e.g. offerings for the dead) and narrowly escapes death a couple of times.
But the real kicker is when Xiaoyan gets possessed by an evil spirit which must have seen one too many exorcism movies from the West. Yes, much to Zonghua's horror, she starts contorting her body the way Linda Blair used to in 'The Exorcist' and countless other imitations and knockoffs since then. The thing which puzzles Zonghua even more is that each time she does it, she wakes up from a trance-like state and claims that it is merely a medical condition which she has suffered from since young. Needless to say, Zonghua isn't convinced, and starts doing some 'Paranormal Activity' by installing video cameras around his house to record (well) the paranormal activities going on around him.
If almost all of the film's horror tricks sounds familiar to you, that's because it actually is. Borrowing from the aforementioned classics of the genre, Cheung combines elements from the typical 1990s Hong Kong- styled horror films with tropes from these recent luminaries. Alas originality (or the lack of it) is not the movie's greatest flaw; rather, it is a lack of coherence that ultimately undoes the entire premise. Sure, we know there are spirits going around, but one never gets a clear idea of just who is doing the possessing or for that matter why. At one point, Jing Jing is possessed; then it's Xiaoyan's turn; and later on apparently everyone else in the troupe, except of course Zonghua. Even up till the last frame, one keeps waiting for these answers, but it seems those are questions which the film can't quite answer for itself.
To his credit, Cheung does a decent job building and sustaining an air of intrigue and foreboding throughout the movie; but without a satisfying enough resolution which explains in no uncertain terms just how the events are meant to make sense as a whole, his film doesn't afford his audience the closure that one expects. Those looking for a good scare should also note that it isn't anything that you haven't seen before, the moderately interesting premise of spirits returning for the Seventh Month opera barely explored before descending into another standard-issue possession thriller. It isn't ritualistic, but this 'Hungry Ghost Ritual' sure feels awfully formulaic.
One just has to remember Tim Burton's 'Planet of the Apes' to realise
how tricky it is to bring to life the humans-versus-simians premise
which the French novelist Pierre Boulle had first envisioned and which
spawned the five original movies that were released between the years
of 1968 and 1973. And yet after Burton's ill-conceived reboot, Rupert
Wyatt's 2011's 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' confidently overcame
skepticism with a smart, gripping and exciting origin film that
grounded the film in today's reality by using the search for the cure
for Alzheimer's as a jumping-off point and making the apes the more
Wyatt doesn't return for this sequel; 'Cloverfield's' Matt Reeves is at the helm, but if there were any doubts whether Reeves could fill in the sizeable shoes left behind by his predecessor, let us reassure you by the end of this brilliantly-directed, poetically-written and superbly- acted film that it is unequivocally just as good, if not better. Returning to script are writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, and together with Mark Bomback, the trio has fashioned this follow-up as intelligent socio-political allegory of the sectarian violence that continues to rear its ugly head ever so often, in the process taking the franchise to new, ambitious and thrilling heights.
Set ten years after the Golden Gate bridge shutdown, it sees the apes having escaped with their leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) into the redwood forest outside San Francisco settling into a peaceful community which has learnt to communicate with each other through sign language that is translated for our benefit with the generous use of subtitles. It isn't just apes of course; among those which return from the first movie are the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the loyal chimp Rocket (Terry Notary), and Cornelia (Judy Greer), who is now Caesar's wife.
Deliberately taking it slow for the first 20 minutes in order to allow its audience to settle into the routines of its simian characters, the pace picks up very quickly once they meet a ragtag group of human survivors led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke). On a mission to revive the city's electricity by restoring the O'Shaughnessy Dam, Malcolm and his group inevitably have to encroach upon ape territory, and the discovery of man amidst their home ground sets Caesar and his trusted deputy Koba (Toby Kebbell) on a divisive path that ultimately establishes the stage for their climactic battle. While Caesar is willing to explore the possibility of peace with the humans, Koba is deadly insistent on waging war in order to claim superiority - and it probably comes as no surprise that Koba gets his wish.
It isn't just the apes that have to confront their trust issues with the other species; even as Malcolm tries to convince his kind that the apes aren't just savages, the memory that the species was responsible for the virus which killed many of their loved ones remains etched deeply in the minds of the human survivors holed up in a guarded compound in the middle of a decimated, foliage-covered San Francisco. Especially after Caesar's show of force following an initial altercation, their unofficial leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) starts to build up their own arsenal of weapons, the former military man still grieving the loss of his family understandably wary of the primates.
There is as much character here as there is plot, so kudos to the writers for taking a character-driven approach to the narrative. Building on Caesar's personality in the first movie, this one gives him an opportunity to demonstrate the leadership he so professes as he forges an uneasy truce with the humans, proving himself to be both firm and compassionate at the same time. Koba is a persuasive contrast, a former abused lab monkey scarred by savage hate and therefore from an ideological standpoint clearly opposed to the idea of peace and goodwill. Malcolm and Dreyfus are their human equivalents respectively, both characters surprisingly textured as they develop and discover their response to the threat at large from their own experience with the apes.
Indeed, there is mistrust between, as well as, within each species - and as we slowly realise, the human and ape stories come together perfectly to mirror each other, culminating in Caesar's sad but honest proclamation: "I always think ape better than human. I see now how like them we are." Reeves works that internecine conflict whether ape or human to tense and frightening effect, ratcheting up the tension to build towards some truly spectacular action setpieces. Yes, this being a summer blockbuster, you can rest assured that the filmmakers have not forgotten to satisfy audiences looking for some visceral entertainment.
Those who are familiar with the city may be able to pick out the resemblance to California and Market Streets in downtown San Francisco, which production designer James Chinlund transforms into an epic battleground where the standoff between apes and humans explodes in jaw- dropping terror. When all hell does break loose, it is truly a sight to behold, but what's even more admirable is Reeves' ability to balance these big scenes with some genuinely intimate moments, ending on a heartbreaking and surprisingly sombre note that packs a powerful emotional punch. Reeves finds new definition in 'emotional spectacle' - that's how good the mix of emotion and action comes together.
On almost every level, whether storytelling, emotion, acting, or action, 'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes' exceeds its predecessor. It isn't just a great summer action-adventure; it is classic science-fiction, restoring the franchise to the heights of its glory with quite simply one of the very best films you'll see this year.
If there was one scene we would never forget from 'Bridesmaids', it was
that of Melissa McCarthy in an expensive wedding dress hoisting her
considerable bulk atop a sink to defecate. From that point on, she has
played an iteration of her abrasive, socially awkward misfit persona
through the lousy 'Identity Thief' with Jason Bateman and thereafter in
the far superior 'The Heat' next to Sandra Bullock - but it isn't until
'Tammy' that McCarthy gets the chance to go at it by her lonesome,
playing THE character which the entire movie is based on.
Yes, in many ways, 'Tammy' is McCarthy's dream project - not only does she get to headline the movie, she also writes and produces the movie next to her husband, Ben Falcone, who incidentally makes his directorial debut as well. And yet, despite the amount of creative freedom that McCarthy has with the material, this road trip comedy hardly gets past second gear, never quite becoming more than a pastiche of sitcomy episodes that fails to add up to any satisfying whole. Even worse, these episodes on their own rarely rouse more than a chuckle, which is especially disappointing considering how she had always been able to make these individual parts stand out on their own.
The fault here lies less with the acting, than with the scripting and the directing. To her credit, McCarthy remains a singularly captivating performer, and even though her aggressive, in-your-face, physically fearless style of comedy is getting a tad too familiar by now, it still is undeniably engaging. She also has amassed a significant ensemble cast to do some heavy lifting - Susan Sarandon is Tammy's grandma; Dan Aykroyd and Allison Janney play her gruff parents; Toni Colette is the neighbour whom her husband is cheating on with; Gary Cole and Mark Duplass are a father-son duo who have the hots for Tammy's grandma and Tammy herself; Kathy Bates and Sandra Oh are a wealthy lesbian relation and her partner - and each one of these fine performers make the best out of their supporting parts, no matter how thinly sketched they are.
To say that 'Tammy' has one of the finest casts of any comedy in recent memory is not an overstatement; unfortunately the movie squanders that good fortune by giving them so little to do. Besides Sarandon's broken- down alcoholic grandmother, the rest of the parts are so poorly defined that they might as well be given to first-time actors. That same criticism may very well apply to the titular character, which for a character-driven comedy like this is simply unforgivable.
How can it be that Tammy has nary a character arc to speak of? We meet her on the start of one of her bad days, where on the way to work at a fast-food joint, hits a deer, comes in late looking dishevelled, gets fired from her job, goes home to catch her husband cheating on her with their neighbour, packs a suitcase to go to her Mom's place down the road, and ends up with grandma on a trip to Niagara Falls. And then to prove the obnoxious side of her, Tammy crashes a jet ski, holds up a different outlet of her old burger chain wearing a paper bag on her head, and eventually gets thrown in jail for further vehicular destruction. Only a speech by Kathy Bates late into the last third of the movie and her stint in the clink right at the end seems to be the catalyst for Tammy's change in behaviour, which remains disappointingly one-note from start to finish.
Such flaws are probably impossible to disguise, but Falcone's inexperience as a director only exacerbates them. Too often, he just lets the joke run way past its punchline, which is even more obvious when the joke isn't that funny in the first place. The pacing as a result is leaden, shuffling along without the kind of satisfying punch that a comedy should deliver. Tonally, the movie is also all over the place, lurching from the kind of frat-boy silliness we see in Adam Sandler comedies to a sweet gooey sentimentality that frankly seems like it belongs in a different film.
Lovely though it may have been to keep this a husband-and-wife family affair, 'Tammy' looks like it could clearly have benefited from a surer pair of outside hands. One wonders how it could have been like if the screenplay were first reworked by some of them 'Saturday Night Live' writers and with say 'Bridesmaids' director Paul Feig at the helm. As it stands, there is not enough comedy and too much of forced poignancy for this character comedy to ring true. Much as we love McCarthy, this can only be described as a disappointing misfire, and one that we fear will take a lot of audience goodwill to overcome.
It wasn't too long ago that Jerry Bruckheimer's name would appear on at
least one summer tentpole every year, but the years since have not been
kind to the powerhouse producer, whose name is today more synonymous
with reality TV shows and the CSI procedural than a pricey big screen
feature. It's even stranger that one finds Bruckheimer's name on the
poster of an exorcism flick, but the novelty of finding out just what
Bruckheimer can bring to a horror movie is hardly worth sitting through
two hours of pure banality.
"Inspired by the actual accounts of an NYPD sergeant", the crime/ horror mash-up draws its inspiration from the book "Beware the Night" by a certain Ralph Sarchie (played by Eric Bana), who in real life teamed up with a maverick Jesuit priest Father Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez) to investigate criminal activities with a paranormal twist in and around the Bronx. In this instance, Ralph finds himself on the hunt for a Iraqi war veteran named Santino (Sean Harris), who encountered a source of primordial evil while on his tour of duty in 2010 and subsequently brought it back when he came home with two other buddies.
As how these cases are oft to present themselves, the mystery begins with a series of seemingly unrelated cases a woman who throws her child into the lions' pen at the Bronx zoo, a hooded painter at the scene who vanishes when Ralph tries to track him down, a suburban house whose tenants claim is possessed and which becomes the gruesome scene of death of a painter. Ralph, as it so happens, has a sixth sense for such cases which mean more than what meets the eye, so it isn't long before he draws the connection between him and pinpoints the dishonourably discharged Santino as the key suspect.
Even so, it does take a fair bit of persuasion by Father Mendoza before Ralph is convinced that he is dealing with an evil spirit (or demon for short) which will not only question his own lukewarm religious beliefs but also threaten the very souls of his family as the case progresses, his daughter begins to hear scratching noises from under the floorboards inside her room. A confession is in order, but not before Father Mendoza reveals himself to have found redemption in the faith by confessing the sins of his youth before God and embracing God's path of forgiveness.
Such elements of faith and the eternal battle between the forces of good and evil are not new to director and co-writer Scott Derrickson, whose own 'The Exorcism of Emily Rose' was one of the better exorcism thrillers which we have seen in recent time. Nonetheless, his latest sees him try to combine such genre tropes with that of a police procedural, and the result is unfortunately a cut-rate ripoff of 'Seven' that isn't half as compelling or convincing, try though it does with a mix of supernatural mumbo-jumbo with a generous dollop of grisly violence and gore.
Yes, it doesn't take much to tell that Derrickson is struggling with the material. Instead of unsettling his audience the way he did with 'Emily Rose', he opts for cheap jump scares, mostly of the animal variety. His idea of building up the tension also relies too conveniently on having a rain-soaked night backdrop each time and thereafter having his characters walking down darkened spaces with a flashlight. Neither for that matter do the scenes of demonic horror terrify as much as they should; indeed, the climax which details a full exorcism in its six- stage glory comes off hokey and contrived rather than authentic no thanks to Derrickson's over-reliance on Hollywood-style sound and special effects.
That the film is not a complete washout is credit to solid acting by Eric Bana and Sean Harris. Bana brings a suitably working-class grit to his character, his performance one of gravitas and poignancy. Comedian Joel McHale makes a good foil to Bana, called upon to deliver a string of witty and sometimes sarcastic quips which are probably more entertaining than the actual crime itself. Harris is intense as he should be, but the same cannot be said of Ramirez, whose spirit seems barely there in most of the scenes which certainly doesn't help the caricature of a character which Derrickson and his co-screenwriter Paul Harris Boardman have concocted.
But in a movie where too few notes ring true, Father Mendoza is but one of the flaws which you're likely to dismiss along with the rest of the movie, no matter that the film purports to be inspired by fact. It is an interesting genre experiment of course, one that twists what could have been a straightforward police procedural into a horror hybrid by way of an exorcism flick; but Derrickson seems to have bitten off more than he can chew, losing his feel not just for the latter genre which he had staged successfully with 'Emily Rose' and 'Sinister' but also for the former which admittedly he has no experience with. Rarely scary or engaging, 'Deliver Us from Evil' will have you screaming 'deliver us from this evil'.
We've had enough of Shia. Shia LaBeouf, that is. Thankfully, Michael
Bay felt the same way. Which is why this fourth entry of the Paramount/
Hasbro live-action cartoon junks its lead actor for the past three
instalments and instead sets Mark Wahlberg as its anchor. Better still,
Bay has sent his entire franchise into reboot, retooling not only his
cast but also his story and characters. And hey, for all you naysayers
who thought Bay's return meant more of the same, well we're here to
tell you that 'Age of Extinction' is more entertaining, more thrilling
and more breathtaking than any of its predecessors - to put it simply,
it's the best 'Transformers' film so far.
On that count alone, we'd say Bay deserves kudos. Let's face it - the reason why every 'Transformers' film has been scheduled in the summer movie-going season is that it is meant as no more and no less than a perfect piece of popcorn entertainment packed with excess and spectacle.
Indeed, there is no point faulting Ehren Kruger's screenplay for being over-convoluted and under-developed at the same time. With the Decepticons destroyed, Kruger had to find a way to replace or resurrect them - hence the entry of two man-made robots, Galvatron and Stinger, both of which were manufactured by tech corp KSI founder Joshua Joyce (Stanley Tucci) using the fallen Megatron as a blueprint. But it isn't just these synthetic Transformers that the Autobots led by Optimus Prime (voiced again by Peter Cullen) have to contend with; their creator has apparently sent a bounty hunter Lockdown (voiced by Jack Ryan) after Prime, the former of whom has forged a shaky alliance with the shady CIA official Harold Attinger (Kelsey Grammar) to capture Prime in exchange for an elemental device known as the Seed.
Caught in the middle are Texan Cade Yeager (Wahlberg), his 17-year-old daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) and her boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor). Cade finds himself caught in the government conspiracy to destroy the Autobots when he brings home an old truck he finds inside a rundown movie theatre that he had intended to strip down to sell its parts for cash, but also becomes the one who nurses Optimus back to health to rendezvous with the rest of the Autobots - Bumblebee, Hound (John Goodman), Drift (Ken Watanabe) and Crosshairs (John DiMaggio). Of course, his intentions aren't all altruistic Tessa is unwittingly separated from her father when Lockdown sends Optimus packing for space, so Cade springs into action to save his daughter.
If you find yourself struggling to understand the intricacies of the plot, well you don't necessarily need to try. Its purpose as always is to serve as narrative glue for the plentiful action sequences, which are undoubtedly the highlight of the whole enterprise, and boy do these really pop off the screen. The Autobots' raid on the KSI Headquarters in Chicago at the 40-minute mark powers the film's momentum like a locomotive that doesn't stop, moving swiftly and seamlessly from within the futuristic building to the freeway where Galvatron and Stinger are first mobilised into battle and then over the skies of Chicago where Optimus as well as Tessa are taken on board Lockdown's spacecraft.
Bay doesn't quite do intimate, but even on his level, there is an undeniable ambition in the sheer scale of these sequences. More so than in any of his previous movies, his signature traits of wide panning shots and slo-mos work beautifully to give the audience a sense of the extent of the destruction going on all around one particularly awesome sequence has Prime and Bumblebee juggling Cade, Tessa and Shane as they leap over a flyover to avoid Galvatron's missiles. The folks at ILM have also truly outdone themselves this time; not only are the visual effects nothing short of stunning, the detail with which they manage to execute the 'Transformations' is doubly impressive, especially when seen up close on the IMAX screen. And on his part, Bay holds his camera steady most of the time, avoiding the jitters that marred the viewing experience especially on the first two movies.
You're probably wondering why we haven't yet mentioned the part of the action in Hong Kong, or more accurately parts of China, which feature more prominently than one would expect. Unfortunately, those expecting the action on this side of the globe to dazzle will probably come off a little disappointed. Compared to that which unfolds in the first two- thirds of the film, this last stretch feels significantly more uneven. In lively verisimilitude, Bay unfolds the action alongside both Hong Kong's gleaming skyscrapers as well as its grimy tenement buildings; but the transition from one to the other lacks the fluency of the earlier sequences. Nonetheless, this is also where the Dinobots first make their appearance, and Optimus' riding into war atop a fire-breathing Gimlock still is a sight to behold.
And yes, like what we said before, the 'Transformers' movies have always been about excess and spectacle; on both counts, Bay delivers tremendously. You'll feel right there in the heart of the action, and might we say, have your heart in your mouth more than half the time. Wahlberg is also a much more solid human anchor than LaBeouf ever was, though the same cannot be said of Peltz or Reynor. Optimus is even more compelling than in previous instalments, more jaded and simultaneously more decisive; and though Bumblebee gets less of the spotlight this time round, the focus on Hound, Drift and Crosshairs makes for a slightly more ragtag but also more interesting dynamic between them. But as always, this is meant to be summer popcorn entertainment, and you'll be glad to know that 'Age of Extinction' will probably leave you wowed.
Just when we thought the Hong Kong movie-making industry was making a
rebound, along comes a disappointment like 'Z Storm' to give us pause.
There's no doubt about it; the financial thriller is a huge letdown -
not only is it because it had been touted as one of the most highly
anticipated blockbusters of 2014, but also because of its pedigree
(John Chong of 'Infernal Affairs' is credited as the sole producer) and
its big-name cast (a who's who of the industry including Louis Koo,
Gordon Lam, Michael Wong, Lo Hoi Pang and Liu Kai Chi).
But as the opening minutes quickly reveal, one should severely scale down your expectations if you don't intend to be frustrated by it. Right from the get-go, there is clearly something off with Wong Ho-Wah's script as well as David Lam's (who also receives a story credit) direction. Both have largely been absent from the filmmaking circle since the late 1990s (their last collaboration was an utterly mediocre film in 1998 called 'The Magnificent Team' starring Francis Ng and Amanda Lee), and it seems have fallen gravely out of touch with even making a decent film.
Beginning with an extended prologue that plays like a recap at the start of an episode of a TVB drama, we are fleetingly introduced to the superintendent of the Commercial Crime Bureau Wong Man Bin (Gordon Lam), who in a raid on an office abets an accountant Law Tak Wing (Lo Hoi Pang) in disposing crucial evidence that could implicate him and many others in financial fraud. Man Bin comes to the attention of the ICAC when his wife goes to the latter with evidence of his possession of a large sum of cash in a black bag upon his return from Macau. That immediately piques the attention of ICAC Principal Investigator William Luk (Louis Koo), who promptly instructs his team to bring Man Bin in for questioning.
Wong's interrogation is the sole highlight of the first half hour of the film, where he promptly calls William's teammates (Stephen Au and Derek Tsang) out for having but only circumstantial evidence of his alleged corruption. Other than that, and right up till William realises he is going up against the likes of two high-powered politicians (Alfred Cheung and May Law in guest roles), the film flits from scene to scene with nary any care for continuity; in fact, we'd go so far as to say that it doesn't even bother with establishing a single compelling sequence, disguising its incompetence with an urgent but ultimately silly momentum and an awfully cringe-worthy score that knows no subtlety.
By the time the ICAC christens the titular operation, your patience would probably have been worn thin, but any hope that things will pick up are just as quickly dashed. The needlessly convoluted story further introduces Michael Wong as a shady lawyer Malcolm Wu doing the dirty deeds for a George Soros-type character, using Dada Chan's cancer survivor Angel Leung as a pawn to hook Lo and Felix Lok's high-ranking civil servant into his Ponzi scheme under the 'Z Fund' - hence the name of the operation if you're wondering. And yet these subplots add little to the central story of the ICAC versus Wu and Co., serving only to pad the runtime so that the climax can unfold on the day the fund is supposed to be listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange (HKSE).
If the story is too scattered for its own good, the characters fare even worse. Koo's dogged personality is attributed to the unfortunate death of his wife from a lift accident a few years back, one of the many melodramatic backstories established in a flashback that feels utterly forced and contrived. The rest of the characters are even less defined - we are supposed to infer that greed is the motivation for Man Bin's corruption, obligatory gratitude as the reason for Angel's predicament, and well spousal love for why Tak Wing turned rogue - and not one of them go beyond the one-liner that would have been used to summarise them in a storyboard.
The same can be said of the obligatory action scenes, which are choreographed with as little flair as the rest of the movie. The vehicular chase you see in the trailer is but the only one that appears in the entire movie, which comes to an anticlimactic stop when the baddies back off after spotting a police roadblock. A shootout that follows shortly after is played out in terrible lighting and ends in terribly clichéd fashion. We know the ICAC aren't exactly the SWAT, but that is no excuse for the sloppily conceived action, which rings smack of the kind of the slapdash filmmaking which the glut of 90s Hong Kong films were guilty of.
Indeed, the association is deliberate. Though blessed with a big budget, 'Z Storm' squanders what potential it has and what vested expectation we have with a shoddy script that is made even worse by Lam's amateurish direction. Lam's experience with ICAC-themed material notwithstanding, this wholly ill-conceived attempt to extol the virtues of the agency is a terrible misfire on every level, and could not come at a worse time when the anti-graft organisation is in real life struggling to regain its own reputation after a scandal involving its former chief. Contrary to its title therefore, there is no storm, not even a squall to speak of here, only a rumble that ends in a whimper.
Before you start accusing '22 Jump Street' of being more of the same,
well writers-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller want you to
know that they hear your lament. Yes, the duo whose Midas touch has
made box- office gold of 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' and 'The
Lego Movie' are keenly aware of the Hollywood symptom of 'sequelitis',
and so they have followed up their sly, self-referential reboot of the
1980s TV series with a follow-up that is even more meta, achieving in
the process the rare feat of a sequel that is brasher, angrier and most
importantly funnier than the original.
To be sure, no one expected the 2012 feature film starring Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill to become the runaway success that it did; but instead of a straightforward update, its helmers Lord and Miller decided to turn a police procedural of youthful-looking cops going undercover in schools and colleges into a self-mocking romp. With just the right amount of self-awareness and some inventive flourishes, the retooled '21 Jump Street' became both a critical and commercial hit, which of course is the reason why this sequel is seeing the light of day.
Tatum and Hill reprise their roles as the pair of bumbling cops Jenko and Schmidt respectively, who after bungling up the arrest of a wanted drug kingpin (Peter Stormare) find themselves assigned to a second stint in college. The address here refers to the location of their headquarters, now situated in a Vietnamese church located right opposite their last rendezvous point in the previous movie whose rundown exteriors are in stark contrast to the fancy modern-day surveillance equipment inside. Hardass Captain Dickson is still their superior, and as Ice Cube growls, "Nobody gave a s**t about the Jump Street reboot. We've doubled the budget, as if that would double the profit."
Yup, before you start dismissing it as more of the same, their beleaguered deputy chief (Nick Offerman) already warns Jenko and Schmidt - and us - "I want you to do exactly what you did last time." You can't therefore fault the screenplay by returning writer Michael Bacall and his new co-writers Oren Uziel and Rodney Rothman for placing our unlikely heroes into yet another shady drugs ring, although this time instead of bonding in the midst of their undercover assignment, Jenko and Schmidt find their bromance under pressure - as the fit, athletic and good-looking Jenko starts finding a soulmate in another jock named Zook (Wyatt Russell) on the football team, Schmidt finds himself snubbed and distraught.
It's a classic case of the college break-up between our two high-school chums, but it ain't without its surprises. Jenko's distraction isn't some hot chick, but a quarterback whom he seems to share absolute chemistry with - 'bros before lesser bros' according to him; and instead of hooking up with the nerdy crowd in school, Schmidt goes to excruciating poetry slams and finds a tender new relationship with sensitive arts major Maya (Amber Stevens), a relationship that builds to a hilarious turn of events at work. Before long, Jenko suggests to Schmidt that they "should investigate other people. Sow our cop oats", or in less geek speak, meaning to go their separate ways.
There is no doubt - this is through and through Tatum and Hill's show. As they had demonstrated in the first movie, the pair have a great double-act going, their disparities in physique and intelligence making them perfect complements whether they realise it or not. Sure, Lord and Miller amp up the homoeroticism between them, but there's no denying the goofy, low-key warmth that passes between them whenever they interact with each other. Between the two however, it's likely that you'll fall in love with Tatum, who has never been more puppy-dog lovable - and as an excellent case in point, his blissful thickness can't quite get more amusing than his delivery of a line about Cate Blanchett or 'carte blanche' in actual fact.
The rest of the casting is also unexpectedly spot-on. Ice Cube is in fine form as their surly captain, relishing the chance to go over-the- top as things get a little too personal between him and Schmidt. Jillian Bell is splendid as Maya's snitty room-mate, whom Schmidt has the tough luck of waking up to every morning after he sleeps over. And though essentially extended cameos, identical twins Kenny and Keith Lucas are laugh-out-loud hilarious as a a perma-stoned duo who finish each other's sentences. Together with Tatum and Hill, they make pitch-perfect satires of campus favourites, whether jock culture, the walk of shame or even the roommate you wish your date did not have.
With so many gags coming at you in record speed, it's little wonder that the plot takes a backseat; nonetheless, Bacall and his co-writers manage to keep the mystery humming with some perfectly executed twists that keep you guessing just where and who the investigation is leading to. The finale is appropriately set in New Mexico, where our leads follow their cohort to for Spring Break, and where Lord and Miller crank up the action for some car chases and explosions in order to justify the bigger budget that this sequel has naturally commanded (hey you can't pretend all of that went to paying the actors!).
But the show belongs undeniably to Tatum and Hill for their peerless chemistry, as well as to their characters whose mix of friendship, co- dependency and camaraderie. Their BFF homoerotic routine is unceasingly humorous, and the jokes are as meta as it gets without tipping into caricature. Indeed, this is a sequel even more enjoyable and entertaining than its predecessor, one that boasts more ingenuity, wit and derring-do than you would probably ever expect - after all, which sequel you know dares to burn its franchise boats in sharp satirical fashion by upending loads of serviceable ideas for future Jump Streets?
Kudos to John Green for proving that popular young adult fiction need
not always be set in dystopia (think 'Divergent' or 'The Hunger Games')
or the supernatural (need we mention 'Twilight'); rather, his
bestselling novel is a love story between two witty, engaging teenagers
with cancer, and before you go thinking that this is no more than
Nicholas Sparks for a younger crowd, trust us when we say that it is
nowhere near that. Instead, as those who have read the book will
stridently attest, it is wise, warm, funny and touching all at the same
time, and the best thing one could say about this film adaptation is
that it retains all these qualities which made the book such a
Going into a story like this, you know that it is bound to turn mawkish at some point, especially as it deals with the inevitable progression towards death of not one but both of our endearing protagonists. What makes Green's novel - and by extension, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber's screenplay - such a winner is just how it earns each and every drop of your sympathies for the two leads, Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) and Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), so much so that when it does play that tug at your heartstrings, you'll not begrudge for every tear you shed. And oh yes, unless you're defective (and we say this with not a single hint of spite), you'll be moved to tears by this story of dying love.
Preserving Hazel's narration of the events that follow (and clearly benefiting from the strength of Green's prose), our first encounter with Hazel is through the thoughts in her head. As a teen, she came perilously close to death, but an experimental treatment has managed to beat back the cancer, and so she goes around these days with a tube inserted into her nostrils that's tethered to an oxygen tank she lugs around in a trolley bag. It is at a support group for cancer patients that she has her 'meet-cute' with the strappingly handsome Augustus, a basketball player whose career was cut short when cancer took his right leg and where a metal support now resides.
Both are immediately taken to each other, and it's not hard to see why. Not only do they match each other in intelligence, they are just as whip-smart, making an instant connection as they trade barbs with each other - and yes, in case there was ever any doubt, fall in love. Most prominently, they bond over their rejection of the usual 'cancer story' sentiments', finding much to talk about in Hazel's favourite book 'An Imperial Affliction' by the reclusive Dutch-American author Peter Van Houten, which just happens to be about living with cancer. Hazel counts herself as Van Houten's biggest fan, so Augustus takes a chance and tries to reach out to Van Houten himself, who unexpectedly replies to the latter's fan mail.
One thing leads to another, and pretty soon Hazel and Augustus are travelling to Amsterdam to meet Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) in person - better still that it is an all-expenses paid trip sponsored by Augustus' Make-A-Wish type foundation. We won't spoil the surprise for those unacquainted with the story, but suffice to say that the trip marks a turning point in their relationship not only because it deepens their personal affections but also in how it gives them an unexpected lens by which to re-examine how they have come to terms with their condition. It is a sobering turn of events no doubt, and even more so when you consider on hindsight what happens after.
Does one or both of them die at the end? Well, certainly. Death is pretty much written into a story like this, so in that sense, it is still an unabashed tearjerker. What differentiates this from the rest of the sappy melodramas is its refreshing sense of honesty about the real- life issues it confronts. Yes, it doesn't sugarcoat the realities it wades into - the disease, mortality, and the impermanence of our temporary existence on this earth - and instead deals with them with insight and self-deprecating humour; in particular, the recurring theme of oblivion makes for a heartbreaking moral search by one of our protagonists to find meaning in suffering.
To his credit, director Josh Boone handles the material with sensitivity and restraint, but he doesn't add much to the cinematic language that Green's book was already brimming with. Instead, the real stars here are Woodley and Elgort, who embody the amazing chemistry which Green describes between Hazel and Augustus. This is easily Woodley's standout role, bringing just the right mix of strength and vulnerability, resistance and acceptance, to make Hazel a living and breathing character that invites her audience to feel her struggle and share in her fate. Her 'Divergent' co-star Elgort is confident but stops short of ever becoming cocky, but most importantly makes for an extremely appealing couple with Woodley.
The best assurance we can offer to fans of the book is that it remains faithful to Green's tale, and by that we mean it is equally sharp, funny, and well-observed. It is also a weepie all right, but one that earns its emotional kick with wit and earnestness. At no point does it ask for any pity from its audience; instead, it regards its characters with the respect and dignity that they deserve, acknowledging their everyday struggles and the uncertainties that the disease has on their relationship. It's not always you get a cancer picture that you get characters saying lines like 'pain demands to be felt' or 'life isn't a wish-granting honesty', but that is also the reason why 'The Fault in Our Stars' rises above the trappings of its genre to become something exuberant, perceptive and genuinely stirring.
As unlikely as it may seem, it is a Dreamworks animation that we had
most looked forward to this summer. Timed to coincide with the studio's
20th anniversary, the sequel to 2010's 'How to Train Your Dragon' could
not come at a more opportune time for the studio - entertaining as they
were, its more recent original works such as 'Rise of the Guardians',
'Turbo' and 'Mr Peabody and Sherman' have all underperformed at the box
office, and it could certainly do with a hit to boost flagging investor
confidence. But never mind that, the reason why we so eagerly
anticipated this follow-up is simply because of how unexpectedly
fascinating its predecessor turned out to be.
Yes, the story of a Viking teenager Hiccup who befriends the titular creature Toothless and manages to convince his village that they are friend not foe was not only a rare unadulterated crowd-pleaser, it also packed some genuine emotional heft with its bittersweet ending. Like how Toothless tends to do in the film, the big-screen adaptation of Cressida Cowell's young-adult book series came out of nowhere and charmed the socks off both adults and children alike, becoming one of the biggest hits in the studio's history. And so co-writer and co-director Dean DeBlois has returned to pen and helm this sequel set five years after the events of the first movie - though this time, he is going at it without his partner Chris Sanders.
Proving that two heads need not always be better than one, DeBlois' solo venture is no less compelling than the first film, and indeed sees the filmmaker demonstrate an imagination and derring-do which truly makes it soar. In a most literal way, that is exactly what the opening sequence delivers, which sees Hiccup's rowdy schoolmates - Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Tuffnutt (T.J. Miller) and twin sister Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) - participate in a dragon-racing derby which resembles Quidditch but with dragons for broomsticks and lambs for Snitches. It's an eye-popping and heart-pumping prologue, followed almost immediately by another which reunites us with Hiccup and Toothless, whose flighty adventures have turned into discovering new lands.
It is on one of those explorations that both stumble onto a fortress made from shards of ice created by none other than a dragon - not just any other dragon though, but a Bewilderbeast, regarded as the most venerable of the species who can easily command the authority of his kind. Within that fortress too is a mysterious woman named Valka (Cate Blanchett), who has dedicated the last 20 years of her life freeing captured dragons and looking after them in the sanctuary under the care and protection of a Bewilderbeast - and in case you've missed the trailers, this woman also happens to be Hiccup's long-lost and presumed- dead mother.
Instead of his stoic father Stoick (Gerard Butler), the emotional arc here is between Hiccup and his mother, as well as to a surprisingly poignant degree, between Hiccup's father and mother. DeBlois reserves the tender quiet moments of his film for the reunion between mother and child as well as husband and wife - in particular, a dance between Butler and Blanchett around a fire to their wedding song is bound to leave you misty-eyed - and makes sure that his film loses none of the heart and humanity that made the earlier 2010 one deeply affecting.
The villain that Hiccup finds himself up against is a tyrant named Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who believes that dragons are meant to be enslaved and used against the opponents whom he oppresses. We leave you to make the judgment whether Hiccup is being naïve or determined, but suffice to say that he believes in his heart that he would be able to convince Drago - as he did with the rest of his village - that dragons could very well be man's best friends if we allow them to. DeBlois plays Hiccup's naivety beautifully, culminating in some difficult consequences that reflect a temerity for the sort of heavy dramatic choices which would ultimately seal Hiccup's character transformation and ensure it be a genuinely satisfying one for his audience. Take this as a warning if you're a parent of a younger tot - it does get pretty emotionally upsetting towards the end, but the payoff is also undeniably rewarding.
The same can be said of each one of the cast and characters, particularly for those who recall the earlier film. Without ever saying a single word, Toothless still manages to be ceaselessly endearing, embodying not only feline affection and playfulness this time round, but a canine sense of loyalty to Hiccup. Each of the other dragons, however brief their appearance, are also designed with attention to personality. It is just as delightful to be reunited with the human characters. Jay Baruchel captures nicely the transition of Hiccup from teen to adulthood, and is just as appealing with America Ferrera as his girlfriend Astrid. Butler brings tough and tender to Stoick and shares some lovely chemistry with Blanchett in their emotive scenes together.
And if there were any doubt that the action were spectacular, well then let us put them to rest. In two words, the film is visually dazzling, and we're not talking about the cornucopia of creatures and backdrops. DeBlois once again concocts some terrifyingly exhilarating sequences here, which make ample use of 3D for maximum elation. It is a thrill- ride all right, but more than just theme part excitement, this sequel packs an emotional wallop that is both moving and uplifting at the same time. If you loved the first film, you'll be sure that this second entry into what is now planned as a trilogy more than brings this animated franchise to new and exciting heights.
Someone once told this writer that the 3D medium was made for the
pornographic genre, and perhaps that's what Chan Hing-ka made in mind
when he decided to make this loose sequel to his 2003 comedy of the
same time sans the two characters at the front. Yes indeed, in case
there was any doubt, this parody of the Japanese AV industry is offered
in glorious 3D, attempting of course to replicate the same kind of
bashful pleasure which its predecessors '3D Sex and Zen: Extreme
Ecstasy' and '3D Due West: Our Sex Journey' promised.
Co-scripted by Chan who has since handed over the directorial reins to 'MicroSex Office's' Lee Kung-lok (another sexual farce for the uninitiated), the Category III-rated comedy has one thing going for it which neither of the aforementioned films had - that is, the sheer inspiration of Chapman To. No matter the actor's outspoken public persona which has since earned him the ire of netizens in China, To buffs and bronzes himself for a role which requires him to show more flesh than he has ever done, but it is his spot-on comedic timing that is the reason why '3D Naked Ambition' is such a guilty pleasure.
No stranger to such farces after pulling duties in as 'Vulgaria' and 'SDU: Sex Duties Unit', To here stars as a magazine writer Wyman Chan, who has most recently lost his job writing steamy stories for a saucy magazine. After commiserating with a buddy (Derek Tsang) about the death of porno VCDs/DVDs with the availability of free Internet porn, Wyman rounds up a few like-minded Hong Kong guys and travels to Tokyo to get to the heart of AV itself - i.e. to invest in their own AV content production and not only with the hope of making some money out of it, but also to have the opportunity to watch the filming live in the flesh.
A word of warning - the more bashful members of the audience (you know who you are) might want to bring along a sleep mask, for there are plenty of scenes that you will inadvertently turn red over. Wyman's trip to Tokyo becomes his initiation into the world of AV professional acting, as the novice learns it the hard way (pun intended) being made to replace the male lead next to actress Yui Tatsumi in a porno shoot. His unexpected overnight success leads to some 'finger foreplay' training under veteran AV actor Taka Kato, and further AV shoots under the screen name of Mario Ozawa (a reference to AV goddess Maria Ozawa) in familiar scenes such as a body check under the school matron, a subway car molestation and even an alien S&M attack.
For the uninitiated, these send-ups of classic AV clichés will probably seem exaggerated and worse, strained; but trust us that those who are familiar with the subgenre (we're being extremely politically correct here) will likely be laughing their heads off. The twist here of course is that To plays the reluctant male here exploited for sex, in a clear gender reversal from that which one usually finds in AV movies. It's completely tongue-in-cheek of course, and To gets excellent support from real-life female AV stars Nozomi Aso, Anri Okita and Yuki Maiko in his madcap routine.
The cameos don't end there. Other Hong Kong actors also appear in minor roles, including Wong Jing, Sandra Ng, Charlene Choi and Louis Koo - the latter in particular appears as To's rival Naoki Nagasaki, who provides the obligatory showdown for the movie to wrap things up on a relative high. Besides poking fun at the lucrative AV industry, Chan's script is also rife with colloquial humour that purposely thumbs its nose at the Chinese censors (presumably, the filmmakers never intended to make their product available for the China market) - a reference to China's belligerent posturing for the Diaoyu Islands proves surprisingly hilarious.
Ultimately, '3D Naked Ambition' knows exactly what it wants to accomplish and does exactly that. It doesn't purport to be high art, or anything else for that matter, except skewer the Japanese AV film scene - that it does with great hilarity thanks to a largely witty script by Chan and a very game male lead in Chapman To. It also pushes the R21 limit in terms of the number of boobies on display, so that should be incentive for those who were undecided whether or not to watch this in 3D, Trust us, it's worth the extra D.
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